Environment

Coal mining cleanups: hundreds of millions went to other uses, federal watchdog claims

Obama-era federal bureaucrats who were supposed to oversee hundreds of millions of dollars of coal mining cleanups across the U.S. failed to do their jobs properly, while a large percentage of the money was used for other types of mining cleanups or “administrative expenses,” according to a Department of the Interior watchdog report.

The controversial report, issued late last month by Interior’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), also charged that neither the federal overseers nor states singled out in the document were keeping a proper inventory of their cleanup priorities, lacked the tech tools to do so, and hadn’t updated their cleanup plans in years -- or in some cases, decades.

In other cases, the report says, they hadn’t done the work at all, only announced plans to do so, and started using funds for slow-moving preparatory work.

Some of the states spotlighted in the report, however, began pushing back vigorously when asked for their reaction by Fox News.

Wyoming environmental officials argue that the report’s information was based on sketchy interviews and mysterious calculations, and has been used “in a confusing and factually incorrect manner.”   They also say they were never provided with a draft copy of the report or asked to verify the information in it. 

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, told Fox News that he was “disappointed that the Office of the Inspector General did not take the time to fully understand” the complex reclamation process, and that “Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality does an excellent job” managing the reclamation money, and receives approval from OSMRE before funding any reclamation project.” 

A spokesperson for the Railroad Commission of Texas, a state criticized for spending only $1 million on coal projects while it spent $16.1 million on non-coal sites, also rejected the report, while a spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality said his agency “has not yet compiled its responses that would refute or clarify the assertions.”

A spokesperson for Louisiana’s natural resources department did not respond to queries from Fox News before this story was published.

The 25-page evaluation report covers the operations of the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), Interior’s principal clean-up agency, from 2008 to 2016 -- that is, largely during the years when the Obama administration was also conducting its notorious “war on coal” intended to drive the fuel as much as possible out of the U.S. energy inventory.

On its own website, OSMRE says that it has distributed unspecified billions in such clean-up grants since laws were passed in 1977, but that “more than $4 billion worth of high priority health and safety coal-related abandoned sites” currently remain in its inventory for future cleanup.

The number could grow, the website says, as other mines not listed on the high-priority inventory deteriorate even further.

The question of who is spending money properly, whether it is being used for the proper purposes, and whether the clean-ups are being adequately overseen, is a murky issue that grows out of the Surface Mining and Control Regulation Act of 1977 (SMCRA).

The primary U.S. law governing the environmental effects of coal mining, it established new regulations for operating coal mines and mandated clean-ups for older, abandoned ones.

The money for the cleanups comes from current coal mine operators themselves -- which is passed back to state agencies through OSMRE, with some of it also used for paying health benefits for thousands of unionized coal miners.

(That produces its own inequities, as Gov.Mead told Fox News: “Wyoming mines contribute 55 percent of the [reclamation] funds, but only a fraction of that comes back to Wyoming for reclamation.”)

Under the 1977 act, states create reclamation plans in conjunction with the federal overseers, and at a certain point, can be “certified” as having completed all its known, eligible coal projects, or established a process for doing so. It can then spend the money on other reclamation issues, or even, these days, on restoring what OSMRE calls “the vitality of communities left impoverished and degraded by past coal mining” -- in other words, social development spending.

But according to the OIG evaluators, while certified states “are subject to less stringent requirements on spending [reclamation] grant money,” they “must still give coal-related reclamation top priority.”

According to the OIG report, that is where the supervision of clean-ups for specific certified states turned into alleged failure.

The federal agency never used its oversight authority to make sure state clean-ups followed the priority system, and indeed, “decided against adding regulations that would describe how it would suspend or revoke a state’s certification if it failed to address coal problems” under that status.

The watchdogs asserts that supervisors allowed certified Wyoming, Montana, and Texas, among others, “to continually spend significant portions of their yearly . . . grant money on non-coal projects while hazardous coal projects remain unfunded.”

Not small amounts either. Wyoming, they said, “has an inventory of $90 million in unfounded coal reclamation projects,” even while spending hundreds of millions on non-coal reclamation. From 2008 to 2012, the report says, that state spent less than one-third of its reclamation funding on coal -- $134 million -- while the remaining $329 million went elsewhere.

The ratio got better -- $166 million vs. $214 million -- over the next three years, but the watchdogs implied that it still did not meet the coal-first priority of the funding system.

On a much smaller scale, the OIG report aims at Texas, noting that it “has spent $16.1 million on non-coal sites while “its remaining coal projects total over $1 million.” Some of the unfinished coal projects, it says, “were originally identified in 1980.”

Texas also diverted $440,000 in the reclamation funding, the report says, “to complete projects that primarily benefit its mining regulatory program” rather than cleaning up old coal mine messes.

Mississippi and Louisiana did even worse. The report states:  they “spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in [reclamation] funding without completing any reclamation projects.” 

(Surprisingly, despite having named Montana as having violated the coal-first rule, the report offers no examples or specific funding levels to back up the assertion.)

The OIG investigators basically want all of those activities to stop:  going back to a coal-first priority, updating reclamation plans with time lines to ensure that the old priorities are met, and putting together an enforcement plan to provide muscle for the oversight effort.

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Officials of the OSMRE bureaucracy say they have accepted the watchdog critique, and all of its recommendations. They also committed themselves to rectify most of them by 2020.

But at the same time a spokesman told Fox News that because the agency “is currently drafting an action plan to address the Inspector General’s recommendations,” the agency is “not in a position to answer specific questions at this time.”

One possible reason for the opaque answer:  the tussle between the watchdogs, the federal overseers and the angry states may be far from over -- and so may be the issue of what gets cleaned up, and what doesn’t, in parts of the ravaged American landscape.

George Russell is Editor-at-Large of Fox News. He is reachable on Twitter at @GeorgeRussell and on Facebook at Facebook.com/George.Russell

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on Facebook.com/GeorgeRussell